Skip navigation

Eva Hayward’s “Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals” begins with a scientific description of the species Balanophyllia elegans, on which she has based her study. Positioned where the article’s abstract should be (and remarkably isn’t – it appears at the end, for reasons I will consider later), this brief paragraph purports to perform an expository function; an encyclopedia entry paired with an image, it promises to describe the creature in biological terms, but far exceeds this task. It may be egregious to classify Hayward’s pseudo-taxonomy as a prose poem, and yet it certainly has poetic elements. Beginning with the coral’s Latin name, she free-associates from its nomenclature: “elegans” becomes “gorgeous,” and, elaborated by a simile, “each polyp appear[s] as a miniature display of fiber optics” (Hayward 577). The description proceeds according to this kind of metonymic logic, following not a linear path of argument, but a contiguous evocation of meaning, pairing biological fact with personal anecdote. Hayward identifies an affinity between herself and the coral, which should be alien to such purely scientific discourse: “My own experimenting fingers grope, manipulate, and reach. Cup colors seem full of touch, of sensing or rather being literally tact, touch” (577). Even when she classifies the creature—“They belong to phylum Cnidaria, class Anthozoa, order Scleractinia”—one gets the sense that this denotation has been included as much for the beautiful texture of the language as for its clarificatory function (577). The strange rhythms and associations of the language evoke movement itself, feeling “the effects of passing excitation that produces [the] ontology” of both the text and the being it describes (577). Description—that fraught term—may be the limit case for both science and poetry: where their tasks become confused, where they begin to borrow from each other.

I am interested in how description, particularly how the category of “scientific” description, may function as its own aesthetic object, even—and especially—as it appears alongside other images, artworks. These week’s readings are filled with instances of such a genre, of works of art (or in many cases, their reproductions) paired with explanatory texts that may themselves be read as works of art: forewords, captions, introductions. Susan Howe situates us in the library, turning the act of curation, of research, into one of production. In her introduction to The Gorgeous Nothings, Jen Bervin reminds us that these transcriptions of Dickinson’s poetry “were created with the aim of a clean, legible text to act as a key into—not a replacement for—the manuscripts” (Bervin 12). We are exhorted to consider these things side-by-side, in a spatial relation—to make them touch—in order to make them mean. Contiguity is mobilized in the same way as in what Eve Sedgwick calls the “spatializing disciplines,” like geography and anthropology, which encourage horizontal systems, ecologies of meaning, rather than linear logic (Sedgwick 8). This is why she privileges the preposition “beside” over “beneath and beyond”: “there’s nothing very dualistic about it; a number of elements may lie alongside one another, though not an infinity of them. Beside permits a spacious agnosticism” (8). In spatial relation to each other, the fields of science and poetry—of exegesis and poiesis—find that they share borders (Wertheim explores this in “Science and Art”), according to a kind of radical interdisciplinarity of touch. Again, Sedgwick: this is “the art of loosing: and not as one art but a cluster of related ones” (3).

The readings for this week explore the spatial logic of being beside in their various explanatory forms: expositions of poems, artworks, poems-as-art, and (even) science projects. There is a noticeable strangeness to Hayward’s article, which does not seem to follow any kind of rhetorical logic. Rather than proving a hypothesis, she arranges her argument according to constellations of related topics. She seems to slip between scientific explication and memoir quite easily; anecdotes about her personal relationship with Cris are given equal weight with scientific/theoretical citations. She often falls into a kind of deferral of becoming-language, creating ecologies of synonyms-with-slight-difference: “My sensual, sexy fingeryeye involvement with B. elegans led me phenomenologically, perversely, similarly to disarticulate sex, sexuality, and reproduction” (589). The same kind of play may be seen in Donna Haraway’s Foreword to the Crochet Coral Reef, which sets a multiplicity of terms side by side: “This hyperbolic reef is material, figurative, collaborative, tentacular, worldly, dispersed within the tissues and across the surfaces of terra, playful, serious, mathematical, artistic, scientific fabulous, feminist, exceeding gender, and multispeciest” [emphases mine] (Haraway 11). According to this kind metonymic logic, we are asked to consider Hayward’s piece alongside her cup coral experience, rather than as a logical extension of it. Perhaps this is why, when we arrive at the abstract at the end of Hayward’s piece, it seems like an afterthought, descriptive of perhaps another project because it restricts itself to a purely academic language.

By the same token, it is crucial that Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars has been transposed from its original lecture and slideshow form into a book. This volume spatializes the strange “telepathy of archives”: how images and objects communicate with each other across disciplines and across distances. It is important that “telepathy” is here a non-linguistic term, that the dialogue between archival materials (and with those who study them) is one that creates meaning by both collapsing and maintaining distance between objects. As in The Gorgeous Nothings, Howe prints transcriptions and their originals side by side, as if to say these are both one poem, and yet are not the same; they must be known in their comparison, their continuity, and in the irreducible distance that remains between them. There is thus something about the mode of description that, despite its claim to exposition, actually exceeds language—precisely because it is to the side of it. Even Howe’s biographical or historical interjections read as poetic, consecrated by their proximity to relic. Descriptions are not explanations, but “rubbings[,] of reality,” depending on their activation by touch and contiguity (Howe 34). Forewords, captions, scientific journals, and even Webster’s dictionary entries may have affective freight: “Often the Calvinist lexographer’s terse definitions, particularly when read aloud, resemble prose poems” (26).

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *